NPR, AP Correspondents: Useful Climate, Fracking Metaphors

The pursuit of the ‘perfect’ metaphor(s) for communicating on climate change continues, now aided by recent unrelated efforts by an NPR science correspondent and an AP Latin America reporter.

An NPR correspondent and an Associated Press Latin America reporter, working on separate and unrelated stories, have come up with useful metaphors to help audiences envision climate change-related news developments.

Two Hands Together, as Praying

NPR science correspondent Christopher Joyce, in a recent national broadcast, introduced his “praying” metaphor in discussing disposal of natural gas “fracking” wastes.

Joyce was responding to NPR anchor Linda Wertheimer’s question involving underground injection of fracking liquid wastes: Might they have contributed to a series of holiday season tremors in parts of Ohio and Arkansas not known for having earthquakes?

Hydro-fracking operators “pump a lot of water underground.” Joyce said, but that activity “is not what these earthquakes are all about.”

“The recent quakes in Ohio and Arkansas are associated with waste water wells. What happens is you use the water to frack for a day or two, and then you retrieve it. And then you haul it off and you pump it into these waste water wells.

And this is a lot of water, and it’s quite deep. And so the deeper you go, the more water, the more pressure you create underground. And that builds up. And if you get it near a fault line, it can trigger a quake. He pointed to a 1960s Rocky Flats arsenal in Colorado, waste water well’s leading to a 4.8 magnitude quake.”

… Hands Together Now, and BOOM …

The next question gave Joyce his opportunity to use his metaphor: “So what exactly does the water do to the fault?”

If you want to try to visualize a fault, let’s say you put your hands together like you’re praying. OK? You put your hands together with your fingers extended, and that line between your hands is the fault. So press your hands together hard, and that’s caused clamping pressure. It’s keeping that fault stable.

You add water, like a lubricant, inside that fault line and BOOM, it slips and slides, and you’ve got a quake.

There’s more to it, Joyce explained. The geological conditions have to be “just right,” the quakes often may be quite small, and “it’s hard to tell what’s causing them. It could be natural, or it could be other human activities.”

So will there be “more earthquakes” given the proliferation of fracking waste water wells, including in some heavily populated areas?

“That’s definitely a possibility,” Joyce replied. “What’s happening is, you’re doing this in places that are geographically different …. They’re doing this in heavily populated areas, and people are going to be paying attention.” He said seismic surveys to identify more stable areas and more permeable and less brittle rocks, such as sandstone, can help “absorb the water like a sponge, rather than let the pressure build up.”

Such seismic surveys “might well be required in the future” through regulation, Joyce said, adding that an alternative would be collecting the fracking waste water and cleaning it up. “But that’s also an expensive process.”

A transcript of the Wertheimer-Joyce broadcast interview is available online.

As Cell Phones to Car Accidents …

In a separate instance illustrating journalists’ effective use of metaphors in communicating on climate change, this time by quoting a source, AP reporter Cesar Garcia was reporting on recent wildfires, droughts, and floods from Columbia to Chile to Mexico.

“The question that comes up again and again is whether climate change is playing a role,” Garcia reported from Chia, Columbia. “The response from experts: Probably.”

With the usual disclaimer about scientists being unable to link a specific weather incident solely to climate change, Garcia reported that “the evidence suggests global warming is having an impact.” He pointed to raging Chilean wildfires, severe Mexican drought, record heavy rains in Columbia and deaths of more than 180 people (along with losses of more than 1,200 homes and $2 billion in property damages over the past four months).

“Researchers predict more wild, unusual weather in the coming years,” he wrote. Pointing to the cyclical La Niña cooling of the Pacific Ocean as “a big factor” in the weather, he quoted Chris Field, director of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University along the lines of the no single event linked to climate change theme … “but we have confidence in both the general trend and in the fingerprint of human activity.”

He quoted Rodney Martinez, scientific coordinator of the International Research Center on El Niño in Ecuador as saying, “In the case of Columbia … what’s happened corresponds perfectly with a natural event like La Niña.”

‘Tipping Scales’ … and Cell Phones/Car Accidents

To Weather Underground meteorologist Jeff Masters, however, human-caused climate change is seen “as having tipped the scales to make previously unprecedented weather events more possible, and multiple unprecedented weather events like we’re seeing …. It’s hard to pick out the signal from the noise, but the signal’s getting pretty strong now.”

Next Field and his metaphor:

“There are always traffic accidents, but if you throw people talking on cell phones in the mix, you increase the probability,” Field said.  ”The role of climate change and weather-related extremes is similar.

The search for the perfect, and perfectly apt, metaphor to help audiences visualize and better understand complex climate change issues will continue, of course. The Joyce and Garcia examples are just two more recent examples.

Let’s hope there are many more to come.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is editor of Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail:
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2 Responses to NPR, AP Correspondents: Useful Climate, Fracking Metaphors

  1. Thanks… we need more metaphors, I can offer the three mechanicals of global warming:

    Pick your game: baseball, soccer, billiards or bicycle. You play best when you feel the action in your muscles and bones – the mechanical physics of how things move.
    As the world faces global warming it is crucial to know three mechanical concepts – the tipping point, the ratchet and the lever – all associate with the current global warming situation.

    Children of the teeter-totter, or the see-saw, know tipping points. You ride the balanced beam, up and down, feeling the gentle rising and falling…where you barely move or push to keep in balance. Then with your feet off the ground you feel the heavier other side dropping as you rise to immobilization, and you can do nothing. You are stranded at the very top of your play. Both high and desperate with your heart in your throat – thrilled, trapped and educated all at once. And the violent fear that the cruel heavy weight below suddenly leaves and we free-fall plunge to gravity pain.

    We are discovering that we are seated across this beam — paired with a huge, massive, and growing monster — our feet have left the ground and that we are on the short end – immobilized and learning. On the edge of painful lessons. It is a fairly new realization that tipping points beget tipping points. As if reaching the top of the teeter-totter we suddenly move onto another teeter-totter – totally unknown to us. And we are at the very top of that one too, which is connected to another and another, and we do not know what they look like.

    The slight warming now, will beget greater warming later and faster. Arctic ice melt raises sea levels which cause Antarctic ice sheets to float off their landed holdings and melt faster releasing more water. Warming then triggers triggers more water vapor heat, melting frozen methanes in the permafrosted Northern lands.

    • There is no need to harken back to the Titanic (hubris) for a modern metaphor – just look to current events:

      The cruise liner Costa Concordia ignored safe course, hits a reef, and the crew immediately start to deny there was a problem. Even when the ship lists severely, the crew spends nearly an hour denying there was a problem, kept people away from the lifeboats. Then the captain left the ship before all passengers.